Six months ago, when I was starting to plan my next exhibition of Endangered Alphabets carvings — my first in four years, and one that would mark the tenth anniversary of the launch of the Endangered Alphabets Project — I got a Facebook message from Kathmandu.
It was from a type designer named Ananda K. Maharjan, who had been teaching a workshop in non-Latin fonts including a spectacularly beautiful traditional Nepalese script called Ranjana that has largely fallen into disuse. For the final student exhibition, Ananda designed a stunning poster that said, in Ranjana, English and two other languages, “Thank you all.”
At once, three things struck me. One, I was blown away by the beauty of the Ranjana script. Two, I was delighted someone was reviving this endangered alphabet as an art form. But above all, I thought, This is what the world needs right now: not suspicion and divisiveness and bigotry but gratitude and openness to everyone, everywhere.
Not just “Thank you,” but “Thank you all” — a recognition that the world is made up of everyone. Not just those we like, or we do business with. Everyone.
The Endangered Alphabets Project is all about inclusiveness of indigenous and minority people; people who don’t usually get thanked or even noticed. And one way they are denied equality and respect is that their traditional alphabets or scripts are suppressed — not taught in schools, not used on signage, not accepted in a court of law, often not even understood by the culture that created them.
More than 85% of the world’s writing systems are in this sad situation, and when that happens, the entire written record of that culture — sacred texts, poems, personal correspondence, histories, the collective collected wisdom of that people — is lost. And with it goes much of their sense of identity, self-respect and purpose.
So with this, I had my theme. The Thank You All exhibition will consist of ten large carvings (to mark our tenth anniversary), each of which will say “Thank you all” in an endangered indigenous or minority writing system.
But it will do more than that. For each of the ten carvings, I’m going to commission the work of a calligrapher or type designer who, like Ananda Maharjan, is reviving their traditional endangered script. The exhibition then will act as a showcase for their art, and in turn it will show their community and the world that their script is vital, alive, a means of self-expression and a thing of beauty, expressive of their culture and their people.
The Thank You All series will also have a personal meaning. It’s a way for me to thank the thousands of people all over the world who have encouraged me, offered their expertise and wisdom, sent me photos and translations, and given the financial support needed to build the Endangered Alphabets Project and the Atlas of Endangered Alphabets. The first Thank You All carving was finished just before Christmas.
This first piece script is Northern Cree, furnished by Charles J. Lippert, using the vernacular-style Kisiska font designed by Chris Harvey (and available for free download at languagegeek.com).
The wood, sustainably harvested in Vermont, is maple — in fact, it’s an extraordinary slice from a maple tree that for many years was tapped for maple sugaring, leaving a pattern in its heartwood like a starburst.
Native peoples, Charles Lippert pointed out, were sugaring long before Europeans arrived. In fact, he added, “Natives still do sugar. Each Iskigamizige-giizis (sap-production moon), which is about April, tapped maple sap is boiled down, then finished to make Anishinaabewi-ziinzibaakwad, or Indian sugar,” the old name for maple syrup.
Other scripts under consideration include Manchu, Syloti Nagri, Mandombe, Mandaic, Ranjana, Javanese and Nüshu. After ten years of searching, I have managed to get in touch with the one calligrapher in the world who is creating artwork in Nüshu, the secret Chinese women’s script, and I’m delighted to say Nüshu will be included in one of my exhibitions for the first time.
The Endangered Alphabets Project’s Thank You All exhibition is due to premiere at the opening of the new Planet Word interactive museum of language in Washington D.C. on May 31, 2020. For more information about the project, visit endangeredalphabets.com, explore the Atlas of Endangered Alphabets at endangeredalphabets.net or see more carvings at endangeredalphabets.com/gallery.